Soundcard Vs Audio Interface - Which One To Choose For Making Music

Is there any difference Soundcard Vs Audio Interface. Are they interchangeable or do each serve a distinct function?

by Derrick Reeves | Updated: October 11, 2021

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A sound card is an interface that converts analog audio signals to digital data, and vice versa. It will usually have a line-in as well as a microphone input. An audio interface typically has all of the inputs and outputs in one unit, which can be connected to either a computer or another device. 

So, What are the difference between soundcard vs audio interface. The article goes on with more details about each type of device and how they are used for high-quality recording purposes. 

Audio Interface Vs Sound Card: Are They Different? 

Soundcards and audio interfaces are both sound card devices. Basically, in terms of function, they are not different. Sound cards help you to record sound on a computer, as well as play it back. They can be used for sound production purposes such as recording vocals or instruments. An interface, on the other hand, allows you to plug your various sound sources into one place—a central point that is connected to the computer via USB. In this case, we're talking about soundcards vs audio interfaces compared in terms of sound production; soundcard is mainly for sound input and output, whereas an audio interface typically has all of the inputs and outputs in one unit which can be connected to either a computer or another device. 

So, we can come to the conclusion that the most obvious difference between Soundcard vs Audio Interface lies in the number of ports they have. Plus, the audio interface is an external sound card. 

What Is The Difference In Recording Quality?

What Is The Difference In Recording Quality

It is obvious that the higher quality the interface is, the higher quality the conversion, which in itself means better sound quality. This is a total win for the audio interface. 

If you aren't recording your music professionally or if you aren't planning to record your music somewhere out of home, then the sound card will be enough for you. 

But If you are planning to do something serious with your music, then an audio interface is a much better option for you because it has improved quality & features. 

The more professional sound interfaces (multichannel options) will have higher sound quality than sound cards. An audio interface is built with a high-quality preamp which produces better sound when you are recording your tracks either vocals or instrumentals on it. That is why if you want to record music professionally, then I highly recommend you get an audio interface because it cannot be to you. 

Many people like to record while they're on the go (perhaps at a friend's house). They might choose an audio interface because it allows them to bring all their recording equipment in one small box that can then be plugged directly into their computer, whereas a sound card would require the extra step of connecting it to a separate microphone preamp or mixer. 

Sampling Rate and Bit Depth 

The sampling rate and bit depth of the audio interface is much more than that of a conventional soundcard. This means that the audio interface will be able to record and reproduce much better quality sound. That is why your music can have some clarity on an audio interface. 

We've got an article explaining sampling rate and bit depth in audio to understand their role. 

Latency In Soundcard Vs Audio Interface 

Latency is the time it takes for data to go from one place to another, and can be an issue when you are recording instruments or singing. High-quality sound interfaces have low latency (1ms being ideal), which means they send audio signals in real-time; that is why there's no delay between what you hear and what it actually sounds like. 

Audio interfaces have zero latency when recording music, but a sound card can introduce small amounts of latency. If you are recording vocals, this could be really annoying if you're singing along as the input is happening at different times to what you're hearing back through your headphones or speakers. 

In general, an audio interface will be a better option for recording music because it offers much lower latency. 

Phantom Power  

Or phantom voltage, commonly referred to in microphones and preamps as 48v, is a voltage that is added to the signal from a microphone or other sound source. This extra power is required by professional condenser microphones which can produce very quiet signals on their own — hence the term 'condenser'. 

We prefer it for condenser microphones; however, it can also be used with dynamic microphones, although the signal will be substantially less sensitive. It is possible to damage a dynamic microphone if you use phantom power without an appropriate level control or pad on the audio interface (or mixer). 

This is where we go back to sound cards and audio interfaces again. The sound card is only compatible with dynamic microphones (the ones you use for conference calls), but an audio interface is compatible with both types of microphones. 

The Difference In The Number Of Connection Ports

The Difference In The Number Of Connection Ports

Input ports 

List of audio interface input ports: XLR, 1/4 inch, RCA and USB, ADAT 

As you can see in the image above, most of the audio interfaces have XLR as their input ports (the cables). A 1/4inch TRS cable carries only a single channel signal — it's unbalanced. 

The advantage of XLR cables is: it gives more clarity and richness in sound as there are two channels carrying both left and right vectors. However, there are some disadvantages as well, regarding the ability to send higher volumes. This is because XLR cables have some limitations in their abilities when it comes to signal transmission. 

ADAT is the connection port that gives a great advantage to the audio interface. In other words, even though the interface itself only has two inputs, you can record up to ten simultaneous inputs in real-time by hooking it up to an external 8 channel mic pre. 

Some audio interface models are equipped with MIDI I/O, as well as SPDIF. These are great if you're planning on using the audio interface for MIDI music production. 

Output ports and direct monitoring 

Output ports on the interface can be listed as Headphone outputs, MIDI output, Line outputs, ADAT output, Monitor outputs and S/PDIF. 

A headphone output is useful for when you are recording instruments or singing. You can easily listen to yourself without any delay, which in turn will ease up the recording process. 

MIDI output is one of the most important aspects of the audio interface because it allows you to have very precise control over your virtual instruments and effects. MIDI also gets converted into digital audio via a MIDI to USB cable or from software by sending the data through a virtual MIDI port. 

Monitoring output is generally used for studio applications. Here, you can send signals back to your speakers so that you can monitor the entire recording process while it's happening in real-time. 

S/PDIF stands for Sony / Philips digital interface format, and it enables high-resolution digital audio to be transmitted over optical cables. 

A sound card can only provide one or two of these features: typically MIDI or SPDIF but not both, and never at the same time. And that's why you need an audio interface if you want to record music seriously.  

Through a piece of external equipment, ADAT sends out audio from the audio interface through up to eight channels, which are then translated into a line level signal by the D/A converter. 

FAQ 

1. Is a sound card necessary for music production? 

In short, yes. The references to both computer power and sound card power in the question are accurate. A cheap laptop with a basic built-in audio device is not likely to be enough for good quality music production — but an audio card with professional vocal or instrumental input devices can take better advantage of the laptop's processing speed. Furthermore, a sound card gives you control over what inputs are used (which is part of why DJ software uses them) and the volume level of those inputs (so it doesn't need loudspeakers). However, professional-grade sound cards with pro equipment will cost more than $500. So if your budget is limited, you should prioritize your purchase decisions. You can find a good audio interface for around $300 or even less. 

2. Do you need an audio interface if you have a sound card? 

I have been asked this many, many times and my answer is always the same. The sound card is built into every laptop and computer. So if you are using a laptop or computer for your recording program, then there's no need for an interface. Of course, if you want to use software that requires an interface then it's something worth investing in. And of course, if your sound standards are higher and need to mix multiple instruments and multiple audio channels audio interface is a must. 

3. How much does an audio interface cost? 

Audio interfaces can range from as low as $50 to as high as $1000, depending on the features and connectivity required. 

Audio interfaces generally include standard audio connections for both input and output of sound. The key difference in cost between boxes is the necessary feature list and how robust those features are i.e., what quality control methods were in place during the building process like automated testing or quality assurance procedures (QA). Higher-priced amp simulators and most precision mics will need a more robust interface with additional inputs that have high-quality preamps built-in. 

4. Can I use an audio interface without a computer? 

Yes, you can use the interface without a computer. Many audio interfaces can also operate in standalone mode, in spite of their design for computer connection. M-Audio, MOTU, RME, and Focusrite all produce quality interfaces for this feature. These are all well worth checking out if you're considering this option. 

Conclusion 

We hope this article has helped you understand the difference between an audio interface and a sound card. Both types have an impact on the sound you make, depending on what you need it for, they'll bé an indispensable component in your studio. The tone of your music is everything, so make sure to get it right from the start. 

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